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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Jury Decides Rapist Still a Threat to Community

Courts: Ronald Steven Herrera becomes the second man in California to be held twice under the controversial sexual predator statute.

November 25, 1998|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Convicted rapist Ronald Steven Herrera will spend two more years at a state mental institution after Ventura County jurors decided Tuesday that he is a violent sexual predator who represents a serious danger to the community.

Herrera, a 53-year-old former Santa Paula resident, glared at the jury as its verdict was read aloud to a near-empty courtroom.

The panel heard closing arguments Tuesday morning and returned with a verdict in less than five hours. Superior Court Judge James P. Cloninger immediately ordered Herrera transferred to a state mental hospital.

"Mr. Herrera is going somewhere where he needs to be," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox, standing outside the courtroom after the verdict was returned. "I think he's going to be there a long time."

Under state law, criminals with a history of sexual assault convictions and mental health disorders can be held against their will for treatment if a jury finds they are likely to attack again.

Two years ago, a different jury declared Herrera mentally ill in the county's first test of the controversial 1995 Sexually Violent Predator Act. Herrera now becomes only the second man in California to be held twice under the statute.

During the most recent trial, Fox described Herrera as a dangerous sex offender whose mental illness impairs his ability to function normally in society.

But Herrera told jurors that he does not believe he is mentally ill. He briefly testified that he has refused treatment and medication in protest of the law, which he sees as a form of false imprisonment.

Herrera was convicted in 1971 of raping a woman and her 15-year-old daughter during a home-invasion robbery at a beach cottage in Ventura. Herrera and a second suspect held three families captive at gunpoint and knifepoint for more than five hours.

Less than a week after the conviction, Herrera and three other inmates escaped from the former Oxnard City Jail, where county officials kept high-risk offenders.

Herrera fled to Virginia, where he was later convicted of a series of armed robberies and attempted murder. He served 13 years of a 50-year sentence before returning to Ventura County.

In 1987, local authorities realized Herrera--picked up for a traffic violation--had never served time for the prior rape conviction and he was sent to state prison. He served eight years and eight months and was scheduled for release in March 1996.

But before Herrera could leave custody a free man, county officials ordered him held under the then 3-month-old sexual predator law.

In that earlier trial, a jury determined that Herrera fit the mold of a sexual predator and ordered him sent to Atascadero State Hospital.

During the past two years, Herrera has refused treatment for a variety of disorders, including severe mood swings and an antisocial personality disorder, according to his treating psychologists.

Psychologist Jill Nelson told the jury last week that Herrera has threatened, spat at and verbally assaulted hospital officials. Based on her sessions with Herrera, Nelson concluded that he has no remorse for his crimes and blames the victims for not halting the 1971 attacks.

"From his point of view, he didn't do anything wrong," Nelson testified.

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